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Working with a Landscape Architect

June 10, 2014

imageWhen I first began thinking about putting an addition on the front of my house, I recognized it as an opportunity to rethink the landscaping of that part of my property. The front is currently a combination of scrubby grass, weeds and moss that slopes down from the front of the house and includes a couple of large, unprepossessing, and poorly placed shrubs (a forsythia and a mock orange). Except for the circular flower bed at the turn into the driveway, my attempts to create plantings in the front have been largely unsuccessful. After years of focusing my energies on the back garden, it was time to make some serious changes here.

Redesigning the front landscape presented two major challenges: First, it made sense to terrace the slope to create more useable outdoor spaces, but doing this (both conceptually and physically) was beyond my capabilities. Second, the house sits at an odd angle to the road and driveway, and the addition was going to make these odd angles much more apparent. I decided it was time to call in a professional landscape architect.

I quickly learned that landscape architects usually work on grander projects with bigger budgets than this addition to my 900 sq. ft. house entails. When the landscape architect that my architect recommended outlined his usual process and fees, it became clear that these would use up about half of my landscape budget, leaving much too little to actually do the work. Happily, the architect smoothed the way and the landscape architect proposed a more streamlined and less detailed process with a much smaller price tag. I explained that I didn’t need a professional to choose plants for me. What I was looking for was a kind of master plan that would show retaining walls, the contours of the land, and the location and shape of hardscape and planting areas.

The process that followed was fascinating. Peter Burke, the landscape architect, came out to the house and examined the property, making sketches and measurements. He also got a copy of the architect’s computerized rendition of the addition, which he could then add to. Very quickly, he presented me with a set of drawings that divided the front of my property into three levels, with a small patio at the middle level. The three-level solution to terracing the slope hadn’t occurred to me; but once I saw it, it seemed obvious (especially because it kept the retaining walls to a manageable size).

imagePeter’s first set of drawings also included a large circular lawn on the bottom level. And, while I could see how this design dealt with what he called the “funky angles,” it just didn’t speak to me. It was more lawn than I wanted, and it did away with the 8’ diameter circular flower bed at the turn into the driveway (a successful planting which I wanted to keep). This is where I discovered something about myself: I found it very difficult to critique Peter’s work; I didn’t want to be a “difficult client.” He was very reassuring about this, explaining that the design process is always iterative, involving back and forth between the designer and the client.

image Unfortunately, my landscape design budget wouldn’t stretch to cover an alternative planting design for this lower level. Instead, Peter focused his efforts on what I needed most from a professional, the design for contouring, retaining walls and hardscape. At first, I was disappointed not to have a design for shapes of lawn and planting areas; but then I realized that I can handle this. I have Peter’s initial design for this area, which I can copy and modify. Since I plan to create the new front garden beginning at the top level and working my way down, I will have a couple of years to think about the lower level and work on design possibilities before I actually get there. It will be a fun challenge.

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26 Comments leave one →
  1. June 10, 2014 12:44 pm

    Wow that is quite a project Jean. And the landscape architect certainly helped with the bigger issues. I had a friend who had a friend who was a landscape architect. She helped us grade, install sod and bushes. I designed the rest and the bones are great…I am sure your planting designs will be beautiful.

    • June 15, 2014 8:47 pm

      Donna, I knew that this was beyond my (relatively poor) spatial reasoning skills; it seemed like one of those times to hire a professional and do it right.

  2. June 10, 2014 1:29 pm

    Jean,
    It is a lovely design! You have probably already thought of this, but can someone with a walker/rollator or baby stroller get to your home without having to carry their “vehicle” up or down a set of stairs with this landscape design? In other words, will the final design be a barrier to being able to visit you inside your home if the only way in is via stairs? Visitability can be something we don’t think about until we ourselves need to get in or out with help for stability, even a wheelchair. Maybe there is a way to enter your home in the back without having to use stairs? But it is a lovely design and there is a ramp in the design. Maybe another one or two can be added? Just a thought.

    • June 15, 2014 8:51 pm

      Hi Shen, I did think about this. Alas, because my house is at the top of a steep rise up from the driveway, there is no way to get an entrance into it without stairs. There is a walk-in entrance from the driveway, but it is to the basement — with a flight of stairs up to the living space of the house. The best I could do here is to minimize the number of steps, make them shallow, and include a handrail. It would be possible to go around to the back and in through the deck, but there’s a short flight of steps up to the deck, too.

  3. June 10, 2014 2:22 pm

    It’s interesting how obvious the right solution seems once we’ve found it. I’ve experienced this so often in my life, not just when busy designing. Wish you joy in the process!

    • June 15, 2014 8:52 pm

      Thanks, Jack. I’m finding this project a bit overwhelming because it is pretty far out of my experience. It would be nice to have a friend with your experience designing gardens readily at hand! 🙂

      • June 17, 2014 1:58 am

        Thank you, Jean! Wouldn’t it be lovely if money was plentiful and we could just ‘pop across’ to see one another’s gardens!

  4. June 11, 2014 12:45 am

    What a wonderful opportunity, Jean! I love the process of selecting plants for new areas but, when it comes to structural design, I know I’d welcome the assistance of a professional to help me envision my options. (Someday, I’d like to get a professional in to help me work out an approach to my back slope.) I’m sure you’ll continue to adjust the plan the landscape architect presented but it’s certainly a great jumping off point. Have fun! I look forward to seeing your progress.

    • June 15, 2014 8:56 pm

      Kris, I agree. Peter’s plan is a great jumping off point, and that’s how I am treating it. He was disappointed not to get to choose plants (he’s especially knowledgeable about trees and shrubs), but I was firm that I want to do that for myself. The progress will be slow, but I like a multi-year project that unfolds in stages.

  5. June 11, 2014 5:40 am

    What an interesting process. I can’t wait to see the final results. The fun is choosing the plants so you have lots of hours of agonizing ahead of you plus trips to all your favorite nurseries.

    • June 15, 2014 8:59 pm

      Carolyn, The final results will be years in the future, so there are still several years of “interesting process” ahead of me. But I’m more of an incremental design person than one to begin with a grand plan. Peter’s design gives me some good bones to build on. I have about 100 plants that I moved out of harms way last summer that will all go back into this front garden somewhere, so I’ll also be making selections from my own holding area. I’m planning a fragrant garden to go in the area under my new bedroom window (on the far side of the deck) and I’ve begun making lists of plant possibilities for that area.

  6. June 11, 2014 10:50 am

    A fun challenge is right! This is going to be so exciting for you.

    • June 15, 2014 8:59 pm

      Diane, Occasionally overwhelming, but definitely exciting!

  7. June 11, 2014 2:29 pm

    How interesting to see the process of a “pro” – they have some very fancy tools! they are probably not so knowledgeable about plants and gardening from a “true gardener”‘s perspective though – often professional designs I’ve seen look uninteresting and artificial. I’m sure you can come up with a hybrid of his ideas and your own that will have much more character!

    • June 15, 2014 9:04 pm

      Rebecca, One of the factors for choosing Peter Burke as my landscape architect is that he is a knowledgeable plant-lover. He’s especially knowledgeable about native trees and shrubs and prefers to use as many native plants as possible in a design. All of this made it more difficult for him to leave the plant selection to me, but he made some very helpful suggestions. But, in the end, I agree with you that it is our own preferences and choices that give our gardens their unique spirits.

  8. June 12, 2014 4:25 pm

    Hi Jean, that’s a lot of earth moving with terracing. Extending out and gardening on a sloping site is not easy either so it’s trying to make the best of the situation. I do like the design the architect has come up with, but would probably reduce the size of the lawn to have more planting, especially if there’s grass elsewhere. It might be fun to see what other people think, they might just have a comment or suggestion that could turn into a brain wave.

    • June 15, 2014 9:08 pm

      Sunil, There isn’t much grass elsewhere (most of the 1 1/2 acre property is woods), which is why I wanted to have a lawn here — but not that much lawn. I’ll probably turn the lawn into more of an oval or a wide ribbon that provides a path from the end of the walkway down from the patio to the driveway.

  9. June 13, 2014 8:34 am

    Wow, good for you Jean for extending out to the professionals. I can’t wait to see how you complete this design with your plantings. You will love the new space! I just love our back porch addition. It makes our whole house and I live out here in the summer just looking at the (weeds) garden. I can sit in the rain! I am so happy for you.

    • June 15, 2014 9:10 pm

      Kathy, Being able to sit out in the rain is one of the hoped-for gains from the small screened porch. I know I will love the space; I can already imagine myself moving around in it. Now I just have to get through the 2-3 months of construction and chaos between here and there.

  10. June 14, 2014 8:17 pm

    I’d love to be able to engage a professional for this kind of big picture planning, it would have enabled me to avoid some of the mistakes I made. I have no doubt you know more than enough to take it from here – have fun!

    • June 15, 2014 9:11 pm

      Jason, I’m sure I’ll make some mistakes, but I’m trying to make them relatively inexpensive mistakes of plant choices and combinations rather than big expensive mistakes. And, after all, making mistakes is part of the learning process. I expect to enjoy this, mistakes and all.

  11. June 15, 2014 9:51 am

    This will really make your house into your home, even just working through the ideas is bound to change the way you think about the place. I wonder what a professional would think of the mess I’ve made of my place! I’m sure they would at least laugh at the length of time it takes to get anything moving around here!

    • June 15, 2014 9:14 pm

      Bittster, I’ve been impressed that none of the professionals have laughed at the efforts I’ve made so far on my own. They have all been very encouraging and respectful — even if they’re secretly thinking that they wouldn’t have done it that way. Doing stuff on my own in the past helped me to learn what I’m good at and what I need help with — thus my decisions to hire an architect and a landscape architect for this project. 😉

  12. Janet M. Powers permalink
    June 15, 2014 8:37 pm

    The plan looks great, but I’m wondering why you couldn’t turn that circular lawn area into another set of plantings, of a very different character than the others? The thought of a small pond also occurs. And of course there is always a tree or several of interesting foliage or weeping shape or loaded with berries for birds.

    • June 15, 2014 9:19 pm

      Hi Jan, How nice to hear from you here. I asked the landscape architect for a central area of lawn surrounded by plantings on the lower level because there is very little grassy space on the rest of the property. But he gave me more lawn than I was imagining. As I work on modifying this, the area of lawn will shrink to make way for more plants. Since this is the only side of my house that is not densely wooded, however, it’s hard to imagine myself adding a tree — unless it were a small, ornamental flowering tree. The whole place would turn into forest in no time flat if I didn’t keep on top of the seedlings. Today, I removed about a dozen oak seedlings and innumerable maple seedlings, just in the process of weeding two flower beds. The white pine seedlings are the worst because they grow so fast; if you don’t get to them the first year you notice them, the next time you turn around they’re 8′ tall!

  13. June 16, 2014 4:52 pm

    What a project! I will look forward to seeing it unfold. I love the way your front entrance will encompass space for seating. The most difficult part is the hardscape, and, as you said, you can plan the rest on your own terms. Sometimes I have wished I were wealthy enough to hire a professional to just come in and get it all done, but I wonder if in the end I would be as satisfied.

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